Goats as sentinel hosts for the detection of tick-borne encephalitis risk areas in the Canton of Valais, Switzerland
Background Tick-borne encephalitis (TBE) is an important tick-borne disease in Europe. Detection of the TBE virus (TBEV) in local populations of Ixodes ricinus ticks is the most reliable proof that a given area is at risk for TBE, but this approach is time-consuming and expensive. A cheaper and simpler approach is to use immunology-based methods to screen vertebrate hosts for TBEV-specific antibodies and subsequently test the tick populations at locations with seropositive animals. Results The purpose of the present study was to use goats as sentinel animals to identify new risk areas for TBE in the canton of Valais in Switzerland. A total of 4114 individual goat sera were screened for TBEV-specific antibodies using immunological methods. According to our ELISA assay, 175 goat sera reacted strongly with TBEV antigen, resulting in a seroprevalence rate of 4.3%. The serum neutralization test confirmed that 70 of the 173 ELISA-positive sera had neutralizing antibodies against TBEV. Most of the 26 seropositive goat flocks were detected in the known risk areas in the canton of Valais, with some spread into the connecting valley of Saas and to the east of the town of Brig. One seropositive site was 60 km to the west of the known TBEV-endemic area. At two of the three locations where goats were seropositive, the local tick populations also tested positive for TBEV. Conclusion The combined approach of screening vertebrate hosts for TBEV-specific antibodies followed by testing the local tick population for TBEV allowed us to detect two new TBEV foci in the canton of Valais. The present study showed that goats are useful sentinel animals for the detection of new TBEV risk areas.